ISU baseball rides early burst to stay alive in Lexington

To start its NCAA Lexington Regional elimination game against Western Michigan on Saturday, Indiana State’s batters got their backhoe out and took a big dig out of the Broncos.

The Sycamores scored six runs in the first three innings on the strength of seven base hits.

Western Michigan responded by going to work with a chisel … and the Broncos very nearly clawed themselves back against the Sycamores.

The Broncos made ISU nervous in the final half of the game as they gradually pulled up the Sycamores’ bumper.

However, ISU relief pitcher Cam Edmonson battled through 4 2/3 innings to finish the game as the Broncos couldn’t muster the breakthrough against him. The Sycamores survived to live another day at Kentucky Proud Park with a 6-4 victory over the pesky Broncos.

ISU’s offense – flummoxed by Illinois starting pitcher Jake Crowder barely 12 hours earlier – came out blazing against Western Michigan starter Nolan Vlcek.

ISU coach Mitch Hannahs shook up the lineup with Parker Stinson and Mike Sears moved further up in the lineup and with Riley Iffrig starting as the designated hitter.

When ISU shortstop Randal Diaz barreled up a Vlcek offering with a hard single to center to start the game … the die was cast.

“After last night I knew I had to come today. I knew I was the first hitter. I knew I had to start leading off my team. I had the responsibility the whole year, so I knew I had to make an adjustment right away,” Diaz said.

The Sycamores would bat around in the first inning, with nearly every ball being hard-hit. After Diaz’s opening single, Luis Hernandez later walked and both scored on a two-run Mike Sears double. Dom Listi and Grant Magill followed with singles, the latter scoring Sears. Later, an Iffrig sacrifice fly staked ISU to a 4-0 lead and a promising start.

“Yesterday I thought we had a pretty poor approach, so today I was just trying to be simple to the baseball, hitting line drives, having good at-bats from our whole team 1 to 9, and I think we were able to do that from early in the game,” said Listi, who led ISU with a 4-for-5 effort at the plate.

The hits kept coming. Diaz hit his second home run of the regional with a big fly to left off of Vlcek in the second. Adam Pottinger hammed a two-out Vlcek offering to dead center to give ISU a healthy 6-0 lead.

Then … the runs dried up. ISU still created some situations with runners in scoring position, but couldn’t cash in on good opportunities. ISU stranded the bases loaded in both the fifth and ninth innings and didn’t score.

“I thought as they moved down the line [with relief pitchers] a little bit, I thought the approaches were a little poor. I thought we had guys trying to pull a baseball that was soft and moving away from us. I think that comes from being a little anxious,” ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said.

ISU starting pitcher Luke Hayden struggled with his control as the game progressed and it gave WMU (32-24) an opening.

He hit a batter in the third and he scored via a Jackson Kitchen double to open the Broncos’ account. In the fourth inning, Hayden walked two batters and hit another to load the bases for another walk drawn by WMU second baseman Grady Mee to make it 6-2.

A one-out single by Dylan Nevar in the fifth made it 6-3 and Hannahs turned to Edmonson.

He took ISU on a wild ride, one in which Edmonson showed toughness, the Broncos demonstrated stubborn grit, and the Sycamores were beneficiaries of two big plays.

In the sixth, Brendan Harrity surprised ISU with a bunt on the first base side of the infield. Edmonson fielded it, but his throw went wide and Harrity reached second. However, after Hannahs asked for a replay review, Harrity was called for interference for being inside the base line. That threat subsided.

In the seventh, Kitchen led off with a walk. CJ Richmond then hit a screaming liner … right at ISU first baseman Hernandez, who was playing inside the first base bag. Hernandez wheeled around and tagged Kitchen for a line-out double play.

“[That] was just a really good play by Luis at first base, and I'm not sure early in the season with him learning first base if we make that play,” Hannahs noted.

Still, the game was fraught with nervous energy for the Sycamores. In the eighth, Nevar hit a solo home run to pull WMU within two runs. After another WMU single, Edmonson induced a fielder’s choice to get out of trouble.

In the ninth, WMU made a fatal mistake. After Edmonson retired the first two Broncos, Richmond hammered a liner up the middle that nearly struck Edmonson.

As ISU center fielder Adam Pottinger fielded the scorcher, Richmond took a big turn off of first base and got caught in no man’s land as Pottinger’s relay throw came back to cut-off man Josue Urdaneta. ISU successfully retired Richmond at first base with a game-ending 8-4-3 putout.

ISU’s victory meant it was the fourth straight regional in which the Sycamores won at least one game. The last time ISU went 0-2 at a regional was in 2014 at Indiana.

ISU (43-14) is next scheduled to play at noon on Sunday in a rematch against Illinois. The Fighting Illini lost 6-1 to host Kentucky later on Saturday in the battle of 1-0 teams in the regional.

The Illinois-Kentucky game was played in rainy conditions and the forecast calls for precipitation through tomorrow, so the schedule could be elastic going forward.

Whenever the game is played, Hannahs said Brennyn Cutts would start the game. He also said most of the relief pitchers used in Friday’s loss to Illinois – Jacob Pruitt and Simon Gregersen specifically – should also be available. He did not rule out Jared Spencer either.